W. C. Fields? Franklin P. Adams? H. L. Mencken? Richard Croker? Franklin D. Roosevelt? Will Rogers?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of sardonic sayings about the behavior of voters. Here are three examples:
- I never vote for anybody. I always vote against.
- People vote against somebody rather than for somebody.
- The people never vote for anything. They always vote against something.
This viewpoint has been attributed to popular columnist Franklin P. Adams, curmudgeonly commentator H. L. Mencken, and star comedian W. C. Fields. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a Pennsylvanian newspaper in 1893. Richard Croker, a powerful New York City politician, applied the saying to a group of political activists. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Boss Croker, of Tammany, defines a mugwump as a man who always votes against somebody and never votes for anybody. That’s a pretty clever description.
Franklin P. Adams used an instance of the saying in 1916, but he disclaimed credit for the expression. H. L. Mencken used an instance in 1925, but he also disclaimed credit. A version was ascribed to W. C. Fields in a 1949 biography. Detailed information appears further below.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1897 “The Chicago Chronicle,” of Illinois repeated the ascription Croker: 2
Richard Croker will have to revise his famous definition of the term mugwump. While attending the world’s fair in Chicago Mr. Croker was introduced to an Englishman at the Hotel Windermere and in the conversation which ensued something was said about politics. The Englishman asked Mr. Croker to explain the meaning of the word mugwump.
“The mugwump is a new creature in our politics,” the Tammany chieftain replied, “I am not sure that I can give you the exact definition of the word, but I can tell you what a mugwump is. A mugwump is a man in politics who never votes for anybody, but who is always voting against somebody.”
In 1912, Leslie M. Shaw, former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, delivered a speech at a church in Camden, New Jersey, and he used the saying: 3
Out in my State, Iowa, there are men who never vote for anybody; they are always voting against somebody.
In 1916 Franklin P. Adams used the saying within his popular column called “The Conning Tower”. He noted that the expression was already in circulation: 4
Voters went to the polls, as had been observed frequently, with the intention to vote against Somebody rather than for Somebody. And so men made the crosses fiercely and bitterly; and, as they cussed out the candidate they were voting against, the pencil points broke.
In 1925 columnist by H. L. Mencken used an instance while writing in “The Evening Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland: 5
It is a commonplace of political observation under democracy that the plain people never vote for anything, but always against something. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but surely not many. The aim of every practical politician aspiring to office is to discover or invent a new bugaboo, and to set the mob to chasing it.
In 1930 Reverend Fred Alban Weil used the saying within a Sermonette: 6
There is the man who replied, when he was asked for whom he intended to vote: “I never vote for anybody, I always vote against somebody.”
In October 1936 the saying was ascribed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt by a columnist in a Lubbock, Texas newspaper: 7
President Roosevelt is supposed to have said “Americans never vote for anything—they vote against something.”
In November 1936 an instance was attributed to an unnamed politician by a letter writer in a Pennsylvanian newspaper: 8
I have known of a shrewd and unscrupulous politician, who in private, speaking disparagingly of the intelligence of average American voters said, “They never vote for anything, they always vote against something.” I readily realize that I am not entirely immune to this indictment.
In 1940 the comedian actor Will Rogers received credit in an Akron, Ohio newspaper: 9
The late Will Rogers stated the truth when he said that the American people never vote for somebody; they always vote against somebody.
In 1944 Elmo Roper, director of Fortune magazine polls, referred to the saying as a maxim: 10
An old political maxim says that people never vote for anything: they always vote against something. Surveys indicate that there is more than the average amount of truth in that statement this year.
In 1949 the biography “W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes” by Robert Lewis Taylor described an episode during which Fields employed the saying: 11
Fowler dropped by his house one election day and found the comedian on his way down to vote. He was dressed rather shabbily, so as to not give government people the idea he was rich, and his expression was fierce.
“Who you going to vote for, Uncle Willie?” asked Fowler.
“Hell, I never vote for anybody,” cried Fields, incensed, “I always vote against.”
In 1974 “The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes” by Leslie Halliwell credited Fields: 12
W. C. Fields (1879-1946)
I never vote for anyone. I always vote against.
In conclusion, QI credits Richard Croker with creating the template for this family of sayings by 1893. During subsequent years Franklin P. Adams, H. L. Mencken, W. C. Field and others employed sayings within this family. Adams and Mencken disclaimed credit.
(Great thanks to IcarFaem whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to previous researchers Fred Shapiro, Nigel Rees, and Barry Popik.)
- 1893 October 30, Harrisburg Telegraph, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1897 November 22, The Chicago Chronicle, Gage To Talk Today, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1912 April 22, Camden Post-Telegram, Crew of Titanic Praised By Shaw, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1916 November 13, The Pittsburgh Post, The Conning Tower by F. P. A. (Franklin P. Adams), Quote Page 6, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1925 October 12, The Evening Sun, States’ Rights by H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 17, Column 4, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1930 October 25, The Statesman Journal, Week’s Sermonette: Prejudice and Good Will by Reverend Fred Alban Weil (First Unitarian Church), Quote Page 10, Column 4, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1936 October 6, Lubbock Morning Avalanche, The Woman’s Angle by Margaret Turner (Woman’s Editor), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Lubbock, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1936 November 2, The Scranton Times, Section: The Times Mail Bag, Letter Title: Will Show Gratitude, Letter From: Arthur W. Matthews, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1940 August 18, Akron Beacon Journal, Coming Election Baffles The Wiseacres, Quote Page 5D, Column 1, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1944 October 12, Akron Beacon Journal, Overconfidence, Apathy May Be Blow To F.D.R. by Elmo Roper (Director, The “Fortune” Magazine Polls), Quote Page 5, Column 2, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949, W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes by Robert Lewis Taylor, Chapter 25, Quote Page 275, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1974, The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes by Leslie Halliwell, Section: W. C. Fields (1879-1946), Quote Page 68, (Reprint of 1973 edition Granada Publishing, London), Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩